by Silke Koester
I travel quite a bit around the country for my job bringing educators together to visit the most innovative K-12 schools that are reimagining public education to better meet the needs of the most underserved population of students. We want to give all kids an equitable chance to succeed in learning and in life. One of the primary ways to achieving this is by enabling kids to own their learning. And it makes me wonder: Why can’t I own my running?
On these work trips my days are jam packed. I have working dinners that run through 10PM and work breakfasts that start before 7AM so I’m often faced with a dilemma: do I run at 5AM in the dark all alone? Do I suck it up and run on the treadmill in the hotel gym? Or do I skip the run all together?
Running gives me peace and the fresh air gives me life. I don’t want to just skip the run and I can’t bring myself to get out of bed to go to the stinky hotel gym. So I get ready to set out into the dark.
I plot a running route from the hotel that is quiet but not too desolate, practical but not too busy, safe but not too boring. I take my wedding ring off and stash it in the hotel room safe because I don’t want to be a target with valuables on me. I tuck my ID and a credit card into my sports bra and a $20 bill into my shorts pocket… just in case. I hide my phone in a belt under my shirt… just in case. I put on my 600 lumen Petzel NAO headlamp not because I need to see where I’m going but because I want to make sure that I am seen. I clip a flashing red light to the waistband of my shorts so I won’t blend into the shadows. I make sure my shorts aren’t too short. I make sure my top isn’t too tight. I tell the hotel front desk that I’m setting off for a run and should be back in about an hour.
And then, I set out the door… cautiously.
A couple of weeks ago while I was in San Antonio for a big educational conference I was returning from a really nice run along the quiet and uninterrupted River Walk trail. As I was stopped at an intersection waiting for the pedestrian light to turn green, there was a homeless man talking out loud to himself a few feet away from me. Having lived 6 years in NYC, I am not fazed by people talking to themselves on the street. He was not bothering me or anyone. The light turned green so I continued running until I was stopped by another red light at the next intersection. As I stood there waiting to cross, a male pedestrian came up behind me and said: “Watch out! That crazy man is coming for you.”
I turned to this pedestrian man and glared at him. Of course the homeless man wasn’t “coming for me”. He was still a block away minding his own business and bothering no one. I felt a swell of anger towards the male pedestrian because it’s people like him who do not allow me to own my running.
This man felt the need to warn me of a fictitious danger just because I am a woman and I was alone. It’s people like him who further this narrative of fear and create this culture where as a woman I am challenged about my choice to go outside and exercise by myself. Where I must be careful not to be misunderstood by my actions or wardrobe. Where I must be warned and saved from ‘the boogie man’ by another man.
Afterwards, I spent the weekend visiting my parents and I shared my story with them. While they understood my frustration my dad said:
“He was just trying to protect you.”
I don’t need protection. I need respect.
I need to be able to own my running in the same way that my male counterparts can and do. They don’t have to go through the whole psychological rigmarole of self-doubt that I go through every time I get ready to set out the door. They just put on their shoes, throw their hotel key in their pocket and go. They don’t get harassed under the guise of “protection” while they’re out running. And the thought of checking in with someone once they’re back at the hotel doesn’t even cross their minds.
Instead of teaching women (and particularly young girls) to be cautious, to think twice about what we’re doing, where we’re going or what we’re wearing, to be alert and defensive, to avoid being alone, shouldn’t we be taught to follow our passions with confidence and vigor? Shouldn’t we teach men (and particularly young boys) that women don’t need protection, they deserve respect? Shouldn’t we all, as a civilized society, enable women to own their running?
As Jennifer Love wrote in her TrailSisters article, I too “choose freedom over fear”. I will not stay inside when I’d rather be outside. I will take to the streets and run alone because I must and because other women must be able to do so too. Because I want to live in a world where as a woman I am told to “have a good run!” when I head out the door instead of to “be careful!” I want to live in a world where no one will stare at me, talk to me or approach me uninvited, whistle at me, or warn me of the boogie man because I am a woman. I want to live in a world where I don’t have to choose freedom over fear because fear is not even an option.